The Mexico City quartet Café Tacuba has long played the enfant terrible of the rock en español movement. On three previous albums the group combined elements of traditional Mexican folk with an edgy pop sensibility and hip-hop production. With the double album Reves/Yosoy, the band has pressed what is by far its most intriguing offering. The twin set is a reflection of the band's dual identity. Reves is composed entirely of moody instrumentals, while Yosoy's 15 tracks are more or less straight pop songs (as straight as Café Tacuba makes, anyway). The release is also, quite clearly, a bristling response to the commodification of Latin music. Which is why the band members smack a UPC symbol on the album cover and why -- maddeningly -- they opt to title Reves' dozen songs using digits.
In its finest moments, Reves presents us with mesmerizing instrumental spaces. "5," for instance, is a hypnotic pastiche of plaintive guitar licks and ticking percussion. The band's collaboration with the Cuarteto de Clarinetes Arghül, "5.1," is an enchanting lullaby. The clacking of folklórico dancers, which comes across like peals of automatic gunfire on "7," plays neatly against the somber strings of the Kronos Quartet, which also teams with the band on another track. The less accessible work here, however, comes across as experimental noodling full of electronic humming, drum loops, and plodding song structures.
The songs of Yosoy provide much-needed melodic relief. Again we hear Josélo Rangel's deft guitar work, Emmanuel del Real's luscious keyboard fills, and Cosme (Rubén Albarrán)'s distinctly keening tenor. Cosme's voice, in fact, is the group's most controversial aspect. Listeners tend either to love it or hate it. I'm of both minds. On songs such as "El Padre," Cosme sounds whiny and annoying. But on "El Río," accompanied by a single weepy guitar, his voice rises to a plangency rarely visited in pop music. Despite the more conventional songs, the band's instrumental eclecticism remains. The jaunty "La Locomotora" is accented by a resonant baritone sax and rising harmonies. The joyous refrain of "El Ave" is backed by a chorus of instruments, from the traditional contrabajo to an undulating mellotron.
Given the band's determinedly anticommercial tendencies, it would be easy to peg Café Tacuba as a kind of anti-Ricky Martin collective. And the band clearly is interested in making a statement against the mindless mass-marketing of Latin America's musical culture. But Reves/ Yosoy's most stunning -- if sporadic -- achievement resides not in its polemic format but in its authentic ability to explore new sonic frontiers.
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